Sheffield already has an established reputation as a UK destination for ale lovers - and already this year more new microbreweries have sprung up across the city.
The timing couldn’t be better, in the wake of last month’s Sheffield Beer Week and the Society of Independent Brewers’ annual BeerX festival, which also returned to Sheffield for a fourth time in March.
One of the new arrivals is Alex Barlow’s Sentinel Brewery, which held its first events as part of Beer Week.
“We must have been the first licensed building site in the country,” said Alex, referring to the fact that work was very much still in progress when the first customers dropped by.
A makeshift bar was installed at Sentinel’s headquarters, the former Geoff Hall carpet showroom on Shoreham Street, and ales brewed by different firms to Alex’s recipes were served - but the initial openings were a success.
“What we are is extremely uncommon anyway - but Sentinel is going to be unique in many respects,” he added.
The project will allow drinkers to see the process of beer being made, from grain to glass, while sampling ale straight from the tank, in what Alex describes as the ‘theatre of brewing at work’.
From Monday and Tuesday, visitors can even watch the installation of the brewhouse’s large stainless steel tanks, as they enjoy more early creations prepared away from the premises.
Alex certainly has the necessary knowledge - he’s a Master Brewer with more than 30 years’ experience, the principal of Sheffield University’s micro-brewing MSc course, and he runs the All Beer guide to educate people about beer. Courses offered by the Beer Academy - where Alex is director of training - will be held on site, and there is a plan to help students of both universities and Sheffield College to understand the brewing, hospitality and catering industries.
Eighteen staff will be taken on by the end of this year, and locally-sourced food will complement a range of six beers, from a 3.3% ABV Sheffield Bitter to a 6.5% IPA. Many dishes will incorporate malt, hops or yeast, and the kitchen should be up and running from April 25.
Sentinel has been a ‘long time coming’, he said.
“I’ve had the concept for 10 years, and the idea of running my own brewery for a long time before that. It’s taken time to find the right site and sort out the financing.”
Alex said he has kept a keen eye on the resurgence of interest in locally-produced ale.
“Ale was always from a local brewery, historically. Then big breweries killed that and it was all about national brands - Caffrey’s, John Smith’s and Tetley’s. That was the death of brands like Stones, which was the Sheffield beer.
“But people saw there was still an opportunity for local beer.”
The late Dave Wickett, owner of the Fat Cat pub and Kelham Island Brewery, ‘kicked off’ a real ale comeback in Sheffield, he continued.
“Now more consumers are seeking it out. It’s great for the city. Outside Sheffield it gives people a real focus, they can come and experience the best Sheffield has got to offer.”
Meanwhile, over in Neepsend, father and son duo Mark and Matt Steer are making headway with their new brewery, Little Critters, part of the family’s Lancar business, which also includes two Sheffield pubs, The Fox and Duck, in Broomhill, and the Doctor’s Orders on Glossop Road.
Matt said creating a means of making beer for other venues, such as The Psalter, the Old House, and Bar One, rather than simply selling it through their own pubs, was the driving force behind setting up the brewery.
“This was always where it was going to go for us,” said Matt.
“My dad has been home brewing for a long time, ever since I was a kid, and we spent a couple of years experimenting by making our own spirits and beer. We got hooked on making beer and thought we could do it properly.”
The pair spent time searching for the right unit to house their 10 brewing barrels - finding somewhere with suitably ‘soft’ water was an important factor - and eventually chose a space on the Neepsend Industrial Estate.
A junior brewer at Thornbridge, Will Inman, will be joining them, and the hope is that Little Critters will be able to expand production in the coming years.
“We believe in the concept of the English pub,” said Matt.
“Local production is important to people. Why buy mass-produced beer that everyone can get anywhere else? It’s just a nicer way of doing business.”
Little Critters currently offers seven cask ales. From June seasonal brews will be available, such as crisp, pale ales for spring, and dark, coffee-like creations for winter.
‘Consistency and quality’ is key to good brewing, Matt believes.
“We understand the market very well. The Fox and Duck is the most popular student real ale pub in the city,” he added.
The question of whether the city can be regarded as the country’s capital of beer is a hotly-debated topic, which a forthcoming Sheffield University report aims to tackle.
Certainly the demand is there - this week Thornbridge, which has eight pubs in Sheffield, announced a £2 million plan to boost capacity with a new bottling machine 10 times larger than its existing one. Buoyed by recent growth, the firm is targeting an 80 per cent increase in turnover over the next three years.
Alex said: “In terms of the quality of the beer scene Sheffield is certainly up there. Our status as the capital of beer can be argued in many ways. But I wouldn’t like us to rest on our laurels. There’s a lot more we can do to make sure our beer scene goes from strength to strength.”